Before the Feb. 1 military coup turned life upside in Myanmar’s nascent democracy, Alfie was running his own hair salon and spending his spare time watching TikTok videos in a comfortable urban apartment in Yangon, the country’s main city.
Four months later, the 26-year-old ethnic Kachin man has traded his scissors for a rifle, a hut in a mosquito-infested jungle, and pre-dawn training to fight one of Southeast Asia’s largest and most ruthless armies.
In between, Alfie joined hundreds of thousands of people who had taken to the streets of Myanmar, a country of 54 million people, in protest at the overthrow of the popular elected government of Aung San Su Kyi, whose landslide election victory in November the military claimed was the result of voting fraud.
When those peaceful protests were met with lethal violence, he joined thousands of young people who headed toward Myanmar’s borders with China, Thailand and India to get military training from ethnic armed groups that have been fighting the military for generations.
"We joined peaceful protest marches and later on, as brutal arrests and shootings increased, so did our urge to start a resistance movement,” he told RFA’s Myanmar Service, speaking from a location he declined to reveal for security reasons.
“Working with scissors is like a work of art, which is civilized and satisfying, but holding a gun is hard work, both mentally and physically. We do this because we have to,” Alfie added.
He said he had been in the area with fellow fighters-in-training from across multi-ethnic Myanmar for almost two months now, and his combat skills were improving.
"We have different nationalities and different personalities here but we all have the same goal and dreams. Here, we get up at 4:00 in the morning, we have to exercise for stamina, we have military training in the afternoon and we study in the evening,” said Alfie.
A little hut among various pests'
When he was cutting hair and playing with TikTok on his smartphone in Yangon, a fast-growing city of 5.4 million people, he had never dreamed of taking up arms.
"The dream of a young person is to live in an independent democracy, and to be a successful entrepreneur with the kind of work he enjoys, but now all the goals of that young person are 100 percent gone and there is no opportunity to continue,” said Alfie.
“There’s a difference between living in a nice building and living in a little hut among various pests. Food is scarce here. There are no luxuries like in the city."
After the training, Alfie and fellow recruits plan to join the People's Defense Force, a fledging nationwide army launched this month by the shadow National Unity Government (NUG), made up of former high officials from the deposed government and prominent ethnic leaders, to take up arms against the junta.
NUG defense officials say they plan to stitch together a network of the local militias that have sprung up across Myanmar and then unite them deserters from regime forces and with ethnic armed groups that are battle-hardened from wars against the national army that in some cases stretch back to the late 1940s.
"Normally the pro-democracy movements entails peaceful protests by non-violent young people who believe they could succeed without resorting to violence,” said Nickey Diamond, an activist with the Southeast Asian NGO Fortify Rights.
“But eventually after facing violence, they’ve come to understand that they must take up arms,” he added.
The Thailand-based rights group Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP) said that as of Thursday, at least 831 people have been killed by the junta, and 4331 are in detention.
Outgunned by junta?
Local militias in the Chin state and Sagaing region, which border India and Bangladesh, as well as in the eastern state of Kayah near Thailand, claim to have killed well over 100 regime troops using mostly home-made hunting rifles since late March.
"Young people are attending training today in the belief that they can overthrow the military junta in a revolutionary style and bury the dictatorship completely,” said political analyst Than Soe Naing.
“The question is the incomparable strength in arms,” he added.
Myanmar’s military, the second largest in Southeast Asia after Vietnam, has used fighter jets, heavy artillery and helicopter gunships in battles against junta opponents -- seldom distinguishing between combatants and unnamed civilians.
Many military analysts say even a force that unites the ethnic armies and the local militias would still face long odds against regime forces, but Than Soe Naing predicted that in about six months, as anti-junta groups gain strength and experience, they can challenge the junta.
If that sounds overly optimistic, Alfie does not let on.
“Someday, we will become patriotic heroes,” he told RFA.
“Let’s get rid of military dictatorship once and for all in our generation.”
Reported by Soe San Aung for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khin Maung Nyane. Written in English by Paul Eckert.
This content originally appeared on Radio Free Asia and was authored by Radio Free Asia.